1984 by George Orwell, Part 1: Crash Course Literature 401

Hi I’m John Green and welcome to season
4 of CrashCourse literature. Today, we’re transporting you to one of
my favorite (slash least favorite) dystopias, George Orwell’s 1984. I feel like that eye is looking at me. The book starts like this:
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast
in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory
Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along
with him. (1)
Of course it’s not just a swirl of gritty dust traveling with Winston; like everyone
in 1984, he’s never really alone. In Orwell’s dystopian future 1984, which
was published in 1949, the world is vile and gritty and the clock strikes 13 and citizens
are under near constant government surveillance. But you know what? Orwell did not correctly predict the future;
our clocks still stop at 12. Also, in the novel 1984, people routinely
disappear and evidence of their existence is erased from public records, and that doesn’t
happen much. Yet. 1984 is an indictment of specific governments. But it’s also a warning about the importance
of free thought and speech, and in today’s episode, we’re gonna discuss the historical
context in which 1984 was written and also its use of oppressive language. I want to think about whether Orwell suggests,
within the logic of this novel, that the written word can significantly alter the society in
which it is produced. And I mean that on at least two levels: Can
the novel 1984 change the actual world in which we live, and are characters in the novel
ultimately controlled by the language they, and their government, use? Spoiler alert: We’re all doomed. I’m just kidding. I mean, I hope I’m kidding. The truth is, as usual, it’s complicated. INTRO
George Orwell’s protagonist, the wind-blown Winston Smith, shares a first name with Winston
Churchill, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom from 1940-1945 and again from 1951-1955. And by replacing a lofty, aristocratic surname
(that evokes Churches. And Hills) with a common one (a Smith is a
metal worker), Orwell puts the fate of England in the hands of a working man, although this
one bends words, not metal, since he is a writer. As for whether Orwell’s Winston will prevail
as Winston Churchill did in World War II …of course not! Now, some dystopias end with the overthrow
of the horrible government, but Orwell’s tend to end with the bad guys and/or pigs
winning. And 1984 is very much a dystopia — a dehumanizing
society in which “there seemed to be no color in anything” and posters of a “black-mustachio’d
face gazing down from every commanding corner” bearing the now-famous caption, “BIG BROTHER
IS WATCHING YOU” (2). In this world, the government endorses something
called “doublethink,” which links contradictory beliefs. So you see slogans like: “WAR IS PEACE,”
“FREEDOM IS SLAVERY,” and “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH” are commonplace. The problem isn’t that citizens are told
the opposite of what is true. The real issue is that their experiences have
become so limited that they lack the perspective and the language to differentiate between
major concepts. But, let’s back up for a second and talk
about George Orwell. Here’s some “doublespeak” for you: George
Orwell is not George Orwell. He was born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 to English
parents in Bengal, near the border with Nepal. His father worked in “quality control”
for opium, which is used to make morphine, codeine, and heroin, and the British held
a monopoly on the trade of opium for years and exported it to China, both for financial
gain and to subdue Chinese citizens. Although the Chinese government tried to get
the British to dismantle the India-China opium trade for 150 years, and there were wars fought
about it, they weren’t successful until 1910. Basically, this was one of the largest (legal)
international drug cartels in history. Ah, Colonialism: The Original Dystopia. I guess the original dystopia was actually
hunting and gathering. I mean, at least for those of us who hate
the paleo diet. God, I love processed carbohydrates. What were we talking about? Oh, right! Eric Arthur Blair, soon to be George Orwell! So as a kid, Blair moved to England and was
eventually sent to Eton, a prestigious boarding school. In 1922, he joined the imperial police in
Burma. In “Why I Write,” he explains that he
rejected imperialism after spending five years in the “unsuitable profession” of working
in the imperial police force and experienced poverty himself when he returned to England. Sensitized to the evils of colonialism, and
now “fully aware of the existence of the working classes,” Blair was on his way to
forming what he called a “political orientation.” He changed his name to George Orwell when
he published Down and Out in Paris and London in 1933. But he still hadn’t identified where he
“stood” politically. Then in 1936, he declared that he was
“against totalitarianism and for democratic socialism, as I understand it.” Democratic socialism basically uses democratic
means to create a political and economic structure that supports socialist goals. You might think of it as being a rejection
of unfettered capitalism. Orwell found the “real nature of capitalist
society” abhorrent because: “I have seen British imperialism at work
in Burma, and I have seen something of the effects of poverty and unemployment in Britain…. One has got to be actively a Socialist, not
merely sympathetic to Socialism, or one plays into the hands of our always-active enemies.” Orwell was against Stalin and totalitarian
strains of Communism as well. For instance, in 1936, when he went to Spain
to fight the Fascist leader, Francisco Franco, he joined the Marxist group, POUM (Partido
Obrero de Unificación Marxista). He didn’t join the main communist party. In Homage to Catalonia, he explains:
“the Communists stood not upon the extreme Left, but upon the extreme right. In reality this should come as no surprise,
because of the tactics of the Communist parties elsewhere.” These tactics, as seen in the USSR, include
the conscious use of propaganda, the repression of individual freedoms, and also state-sponsored
murder. But the point I want to make here is that
it’s not quite accurate for either the contemporary left or right to “claim” Orwell–his most
famous novels are anti-communist; but they’re also anti-capitalist. Mostly, they seek to show the ways that many
government structures are prone to totalitarianism, and they chart the slow, almost unnoticeable
descent into that totalitarianism. But in 1984 specifically, Orwell explores
the difficulty of retaining individual freedom within the confines of an oppressive society. In the book, the earth is divided into three
zones–Oceania, Eurasia, and Eastasia–which are constantly at war with one another. And Winston lives in London, the main city
of Airstrip One, which is a province of Oceania. He’s legally married to the stiff, brainwashed,
and desireless Katherine. Unable to produce children, they live separately
and are forbidden from remarrying. Winson’s primary pleasures include itching
a varicose ulcer above his right ankle, drinking shots of a “sickly, oily” Victory Gin
(which provides “the sensation of being hit on the back of the head with a rubber
club”) and writing in a “thick, quarto-sized blank book with a red back and a marbled cover”
(1, 5, 5). So you know, his pleasures are scant. Any life where one of the chief pleasures
is scratching an actual, literal itch, is not, like, a great life. I mean, it’s a good life for a dog, but
not a great life for a person. Then Winston’s pleasures, and anxieties,
experience a significant uptick when he begins an affair with the young, vital and beautiful
Julia. Despite being “ten or fifteen years younger,”
Julia boldly declares her love for Winston. Winston is incredulous: “I’m thirty-nine
years old. I’ve got a wife that I can’t get rid of. I’ve got varicose veins. I’ve got five false teeth.” And the reader may have doubts as well. I mean, when Julia replies, “I couldn’t
care less,” Orwell seems to acknowledge (but not apologize for) this particular breed
of middle-aged male fantasy. (122). But you know, it’s also a romance that serves
a plot. So, Winston and Julia meet secretly for months. They rent rooms from an antiques dealer named
Mr. Charrington in the plebian quarter of London. They confess their affair and anti-party beliefs
to O’Brien, a member of the Inner Party who seems to be sympathetic to their cause. And they begin reading a book that is allegedly
written by the underground resistance leader, Emmanuel Goldstein. They know that they’ll be discovered, tortured,
and (very probably) executed. Their victories–and yes they have some–come
from small moments of consciousness, human connection, and personal freedom. And these moments are tiny. For Winston, some of these moments include:
procuring a pen with a real nib “simply because of a feeling that the beautiful creamy
paper deserved to be written on” (7); succumbing to the ”balminess of the April air” to
stroll through the “labyrinth of London” (84);
Winston also purchases a glass paperweight containing coral, and all of this leads to
a cool point: despite the authoritarian nature of Ingsoc
(the perversion of socialism that dominates Oceania), moments of personal freedom like
these are commonplace. There’s even a word for them in Newspeak,
the new language that the government is developing: “ownlife, it was called, meaning individualism
and eccentricity” (84). But of course, the line between experiencing
an “ownlife” and engaging in political subversion is really thin. I mean, when Winston gives in to his “animal
instinct, the simple undifferentiated desire” to have sex with Julia: “Their embrace had
been a battle, the climax a victory. It was a blow struck against the Party. It was a political act” (128-9). There’s no ambiguity there. Making your life yours, making your choices
yours, is political. And also, having your own thoughts is political. I mean, The Party doesn’t just suppress
subversion through surveillance, and arrest, and torture, and execution, those oldies but
goodies from Totalitarianism for Dummies. In 1984, the government also suppresses individualism
by limiting language. Just four pages into the book, an asterisk
appears after the first mention of “Newspeak”: This asterisk interrupts the narrative flow,
breaking any bond that the reader may be (or, let’s be honest, may not be) forming with
Winston. And it entices the reader towards an appendix,
narrated by a scholar living long after Winston. The appendix explains that Newspeak had been
“devised to meet the ideological needs of Ingsoc” (309) and that its vocabulary has
been designed: “to make speech, and especially speech on any subject not ideologically neutral,
as nearly as possible independent of consciousness” (319). In other words, it’s meant newspeak seeks
to make it nearly impossible to express, and maybe in turn maybe even to THINK, revolutionary
thoughts. Let’s go to the Thought-bubble:
Newspeak has three main categories of vocabulary: The A vocabulary contains blunt words for
daily functions, like eating, working, and sleeping. These words don’t have multiple meanings. (The examples listed include “hit, run,
dog, tree, sugar, house, field”) The B vocabulary contains compound words that
blend a noun and verb to express a limited number of political or ideological concepts. Like, “Goodthink” means orthodoxy to party
policy. “Crimethink” is its opposite. And the C vocabulary is scientific and technical. It contains jargon accessible only to workers
in a particular field. The idea is that no individual will be able
to synthesize knowledge from multiple fields. So people will be able to do their work, but
not be able to understand the context in which that work is happening. And that’s one example of how, by trying
to limit what people can say, the government is hoping to constrain what they can think. And an interesting feature of the Appendix
is that it explains th contained many superfluous words and archaic formulations which were
due to be suppressed later” (309). This foreshadows that language will become
increasingly oppressive… Which, of course, is bad news for Winston
and his peers. But there is some good news for the rest of
humanity. Because you will notice that the appendix
is written in Standard English. As many readers (including Thomas Pynchon
and Margaret Atwood) have pointed out, this suggests that free thought and its expression
will ultimately prevail, and that language will once again be rich and complex and free. Thanks Thought Bubble. So how do we get back to free language? Well I’m a writer, and as such I’m almost
professionally obligated to believe in the power of language–and next week we’ll go
into more detail about the complicated relationship between thoughts and language, but I think
it’s worth mentioning now that while we don’t think entirely in words, language
does help give form and expression to complex ideas within us. I mean, that’s part of what books attempt
to do, but it’s also something we’re all doing all day, because we think in language. It’s one of the primary ways we communicate
our feelings and experiences to other people, but it’s also one of the primary ways we
communicate that stuff within us. And I think in 1984 Orwell argues that the
restriction of language is ultimately a form of restricting thought itself. It’s encouraging that Newspeak may ultimately
fail, but it does make me wonder: what thoughts can’t I think because of the language that
I’ve inherited? Next time we’ll also address a question
that should be on your mind (since you’re watching this video on something very like
a telescreen, possibly while in a government-funded school where the government is deciding at
least in part what you learn about): What can 1984 teach us about our current political
context and our relationship to what many have called “surveillance” society? And in a world where so many of us volunteer
so much of ourselves to the public sphere, is there value in private life? Spoiler alert: I think so. But we’ll talk more about that next week. Thanks for watching. I’ll see you then.


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